DURHAM, N.H. – The investigation into how a young woman contracted a rare form of anthrax has rippled through this college town, cutting off a small but valued source of food, shelter and community.
The United Campus Ministry's Waysmeet Center was shut down late last month after the woman became critically ill after attending a Dec. 4 drum circle there. Two of the center's drums and an electrical outlet have tested positive for anthrax, and authorities say the woman likely swallowed anthrax spores propelled into the air by vigorous drumming.
The center houses eight University of New Hampshire students, a food pantry and a variety of programs involving campus organizations and community groups. The building's doors, once open to all, are wrapped in yellow tape and plastered with "no trespassing" signs.
"It's not just a young woman who is sick," the Rev. Larry Brickner-Wood said Thursday. "There are students who've been displaced. There are people who can't get to the food pantry. There are folks who aren't able to come together. There are a lot of things that aren't able to happen."
But, he added, the most important thing remains the woman's recovery. Her name has not been released.
"That building is very dear to me, but they're things. Those drums are very dear to me, but they're things," he said.
The two drums that tested positive for anthrax were donated to the center, he said. One was a decorative drum that was rarely played; the other was the one Brickner-Wood most often played, though he did not play that night.
"Most of our drums are from companies that do fair trade and sustainably harvested wood but in a shoestring operation, if people give you musical instruments, you take them," he said.
There have been several recent U.S. anthrax cases linked to naturally occurring anthrax on animal hide-covered drums. This case is unusual because the spores didn't enter through the skin or lungs but through the woman's digestive system.
Chris Adamski with the state Department of Health and Human Services said 64 drums were used that night. Besides the two that tested positive for anthrax, 52 others tested negative and the other 10 were being tested Thursday.
The pastor said he hasn't decided whether to continue the drum circles. One option may be banning outside drums, though that would run counter to the center's core philosophy of openness, he said.
"That's just not who we are," he said.
Public health officials have contacted 52 of the 60 people who attended the drum circle, and among those contacted, more than half have gotten vaccinated or are taking antibiotics, Adamski said.
That includes Brickner-Wood, who initially didn't want to take the antibiotics in part because he recently finished a 10-day course of antibiotics during a lengthy recovery from pneumonia and the flu. He changed his mind quickly after feeling a bit sick one day.
"I have a family and I'd feel pretty stupid with the antibiotics sitting on the counter if something happened, just like I'd feel stupid if I was kayaking without my life jacket," he said.
Brickner-Wood said he has been drumming for eight or nine years and started the monthly drum circle and pasta dinner at the ministry center about five years ago. It quickly became popular among students and community members.
Though he does not know the woman who became ill and doesn't believe he met her that night, Brickner-Wood recalled that the Dec. 4 event was very crowded.